Where Jesus Is

In wilderness places when it’s hard to make it through the day, sometimes the biggest battle is in your head. Because in the desert, the Enemy’s voice whispers loud, and there is no rest from the scouring wind and scorching sun. The sand keeps shifting beneath your feet until you begin to forget that there is a rock-solid Truth underneath it all…seems easier to listen to the voice saying that you are not enough, and that you better take what you need any way you can get it because no one else is watching out for you. The way to get lost in the wilderness is to listen to the constant refrain that where you are is all there is ever going to be.

But David the Musician knew the wilderness long before he became King, and he is singing out of the desert , “O God…I thirst for You, my whole being longs for You, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1) He knew that the only way to survive the harsh barren places was to turn his eyes on the One who gives Living Water…the One who is beautiful beyond measure. “I have seen You in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because Your love is better than life, my lips will glorify You. I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.” (verses 2-4) You can focus on all that you lack in the seemingly endless days, or you can focus on the Giver of all things, like a compass-point to steer by and know that eventually you will end up safely Home. “I cling to You; Your right hand upholds me.” (v.8) It is the first choice of every day, the last before you lay your head down at night; even when no one else can hear, and you feel like you are all alone. “On my bed I remember You; I think of You through the watches of the night.” (verse 6) This is Wilderness Survival 101.

And yeah, maybe the Enemy knows all the right buttons to push, because I am most assuredly not enough for any of this…but in the middle of all I cannot control and everything I cannot fix, and the obvious shortage of wisdom and patience and strength in me, still the Spirit of the Lord who conquered death and sin is alive in me, and I am not alone. “Because You are my help, I sing in the shadow of Your wings.” (verse 7) 

Just hold on tight and take the next step, one after another, and don’t be afraid to hurl the everlasting Truth defiantly into the face of the storm.

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“Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’” (Lamentations 3:21-24)

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“Can’t go back to the beginning,
Can’t control what tomorrow will bring,
But I know here in the middle
Is the place where You promise to be.

I’m not enough unless You come;
Will you meet me here again?
Cause all I want is all You are;
Will You meet me here again?

As I walk now through the valley,
Let Your love rise above every fear;
Like the sun shaping the shadow,
In my weakness Your glory appears…

Not for a minute
Was I forsaken;
The Lord is in this place,
The Lord is in this place.

Come Holy Spirit–
Dry bones awaken;
The Lord is in this place,
The Lord is in this place.”
(Here Again, Elevation Worship)

A Debtor to Grace

It means a great deal to us that God’s love comes no strings attached– matters greatly that the love of the Father is unconditional, if only because love like that is so hard to find. The people we care about have immense power to harm us, precisely because they can pull their love out from under us in the turn of a word, smash our hearts into a billion little pieces. Relationships are terrifyingly fragile, for all that we treat them like fortresses. The worst of it is, we know we aren’t perfect, can’t always measure up to people’s expectations and wishes, and it is only a matter of time before they see who we really are and turn away. I wonder how much of life for most of us is trying to be enough to deserve the affection we desire. But God is different than that. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) It is the very picture of love undeserved.

And yet, our understanding of what that means gets a little fuzzy in everyday use. Somehow no strings attached translates as no demands in our thinking, until we get to feeling like we are pretty lucky to have this great gift and still be able to pursue a good life by making people happy….like maybe this is the one relationship we will not have to put effort into. But while unconditional love may mean that there’s nothing I can do to gain more or less of it, it does not necessarily follow that unconditional love will not require something of me. Love doesn’t have strings that manipulate, but it very definitely has ties that bind; and although God doesn’t require me to do anything to earn His love, still I will be working gladly to honor that great gift for the rest of my life. Anything less would disrespect the Giver.

Grace means that God accepts me right where I am, knowing full well that I am not enough and can never measure up. But He is not about to leave me in that sorry state. As Paul explained it to the first believers, “God knew what He was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity He restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in Him. After God made that decision of what His children should be like, He followed it up by calling people by name. After He called them by name, He set them on a solid basis with Himself. And then, after getting them established, He stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what He had begun.” (Romans 8:29, The Message) That is a pretty big agenda, and not optional, much to my frequent surprise.

So from the moment of my adoption He was already working to change my life. Grace is a relieved freedom from trying to get somewhere on my own, but it is hardly freedom to do what I like. God’s love allows me to become who I was always meant to be, and that person was designed and created by Him to be whole and healed and beautiful in Jesus’ light: alive with His love, His joy, His peace, His patience, His kindness, His goodness, His faithfulness, His gentleness, His self-control. It costs me nothing to receive, but it will cost everything to live it out.

And we will not regret it even a little.

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God gives you grace and acceptance before you overcome your sin.
Because it’s His grace and acceptance that let you overcome your sin.

You don’t overcome your brokenness to have God’s love.
It’s God’s love that has you overcoming your brokenness. (Ann VosKamp)

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“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8)

Not Wasted At All

Sometimes I think we are looking at all the wrong things when we read the story Jesus told about the two brothers and their father. Even the title is indicative of our slant– the name prodigal son is wasted on the younger brother, because although he certainly was all about wasting his inheritance, that is hardly the point of the story. I mean, as long as we go on seeing him only as disrespectful and irresponsible we can shake our heads and agree that it is hard to forgive people who make a mess of everyone’s lives and come back looking for grace. Call the older brother offended (as we would certainly be at our sibling’s behavior)…even call him unforgiving or jealous; better yet, point out that the father best deserves the name prodigal as he pours out his love and grace– wastes it without regard for justice on the one who has wronged him. But let the boy’s situation hit our hearts squarely in all its raw need: “So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” (Luke 15:15-16)

The younger brother is better understood in the context of the other two stories Jesus told to the crowds. His is the third– the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son– and in the first two we are hearing it from the perspective of those who have lost something of value, so it is right when we come to the third to see the grief of the Father over everything that has been destroyed by his son’s bad choices. After all, these are parables, simple memorable stories intended to teach a moral lesson to those who listen. But this time we get a window into what it is like to be the one lost. And we see a boy who is desperate, alone, hear how broken is his pride and how ready to admit that he needs his father’s love and forgiveness, even if he doesn’t deserve it. If we are going to understand forgiveness, we need to see things from the younger son’s perspective, and feel his pain when he cries out, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” (Luke 15:18-19)

Because I suspect that you can’t really understand forgiving someone else until you know what it means to long for forgiveness yourself, to hunger and thirst for that righteousness that wipes away shame and guilt…until you can weep with King David: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” (Psalm 51:1) Any concept you have of forgiveness is likely to be more intellectual (and pretty anemic) until you have seen the blood on your own hands, and faced the dark closets in your own soul, prostrated yourself before God: “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:7) You can be sure that David was not reciting any formula or just doing what was expected of him when he pleaded “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones You have crushed rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.” (Psalm 51:8-9) on the deathbed of his infant son. Only such a gifted musician could have written melody for the agony of a father bearing the guilt of his son’s death. And only those who have received grace know its life-giving power to people lost in the dark.

The parable of the two brothers and their father is above all a story to teach God’s prodigal grace. And although we might be tempted to look at the two brother’s achievements and name one more deserving than the other, the Father’s love and grace pours out on both extravagantly, unhindered by our measurements and unconcerned by our ideas of fairness. Grace isn’t grace unless it is undeserved, and grace is never wasted– just ask anyone who knows their need. “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

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“You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek You; I thirst for You, my whole being longs for You, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. I have seen You in the sanctuary and beheld Your power and Your glory. Because Your love is better than life, my lips will glorify You.” (Psalm 63:1-3)

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“There’s a place where sin and shame
Are powerless;
Where my heart has peace with God
And forgiveness;
Where all the love I’ve ever found
Comes like a flood,
Comes flowing down.
At the cross, at the cross,
I surrender my life–
I’m in awe of You…”
(At The Cross, Chris Tomlin)

A Beautiful and Dangerous Good

This week I heard a worship leader tell his story, how Jesus came and found him when he was wandering lost, and picked him up and carried him safe Home, because He is good like that. And some stranger walked up to us out of the blue yesterday and shared how he thought he was doing okay in life until God knocked it all down around his ears, and in the rubble he found faith that could carry him. He told us his thanks to a good God for the ruin that brought about his restoration.

And I see how the same Goodness that gathers up the broken and the desperate also roars in the storm, and still we are loved and we are held. The prophet Isaiah wrote down God’s promise to us: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God…” (Isaiah 43:2-3a) And there is this wild, fierce Love that pursues, that goes to any lengths to obtain our hearts; an inexorable Goodness that will not be satisfied with our comfort or our sincerity, but is willing to see everything on earth shaken for the sake of what will last.

It underscores to me that we don’t always know whether something is good or bad for us until we’ve lived through it and gained the wisdom that comes from time and perspective. It makes me pause on that reaction to call things good or bad because of how I feel about them. I want the Good Shepherd to come find me when I am lost– I am quick to justify the effort spent, the blood spilled– because the result is my rescue. But shouldn’t I also be willing to celebrate when the Good Gardener cuts back the branches– smashes all these pretty golden idols– so that I can become who He wants me to be? I find my faith is still so small and selfish; it wants what is good for me and only if it is not too difficult.

Jesus said you can recognize Goodness when you see it, because it spends itself for the sake of others: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) This is the axis of our faith, that Love and Goodness has been poured out for us in such unthinkable abundance that there is truly nothing that we need to fear or grasp for, beyond Himself….nothing that can stand against us in all heaven and earth. Or as Paul told the early Believers, “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32) All our faith revolves around the Cross and the earth-shattering event of what Jesus accomplished for us there. So maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that the good and the hard of life look different now.

If it is true that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” (Romans 8:28) then why should I lose my wits when the things of earth are shaken? Let me rather hold onto Truth and open eyes of faith to see His hand at work everywhere, and no end to His Goodness. If “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord,”  then let me stand here in this Love that defies reason, and wait to see what He will do for me in whatever comes. If “Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34), then I can trust that I have all I need to live well on this earth.

I feel like a child holding a kaleidoscope up to the Light, and I could spend my whole life gazing at the way He moves. The Musician-King said it best: “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek Him in his temple.” (Psalm 27:4)

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 “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity..” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

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“He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane–
I am a tree,
Bending beneath
The weight of His wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden
I am unaware of these
Afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.
Oh how he loves us so…”
(How He Loves, John Mark McMillan)

 

The Safest Place

On days when you are trying to be brave, holding onto faith for dear life, but there’s this frantic whisper in the back of your head that circumstances are more than you can handle right now, and what in the world does a person have to do to catch a break in this tempest, let this truth sink in deep: Jesus is standing beside His Father in Heaven paying attention to everything that concerns you. He is holding you securely in His strong arms, and even before you reach out to Him, He is praying for you.

The writer of Hebrews wants to make sure we understand the richness of our inheritance in Christ, and all the ways He fulfills the promises of God. The Law was God’s gift to Israel as His chosen people; but Jesus is the Father’s precious gift to all who believe– God giving Himself to us forever. “…He is able to save completely those who come to God through Him, because He always lives to intercede for them.” (Hebrews 7:25) 

Rest in this, that you are His own, and He is acting on your behalf. If you make your spirit comfortably at home in this truth, you will find all that you need for this day.

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“Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”  (Psalm 91:1-2)

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Jesus lives to endlessly, relentlessly and flawlessly pray for you….

Jesus is praying for your holiness because He knows holiness is your ultimate happiness….Jesus is praying that you’ll be brave when you’re about to break, that you’ll turn from what’s tempting, that you’ll stand against what’s strangling, that you’ll escape into Him instead of trying to escape in a thousand unfulfilling ways.” (Ann VosKamp)

Prying My Fingers Loose

It seems instinctive, this fear of loss, this near-stranglehold on what matters to us. Of course we’ve learned to cover it up well, to give it acceptable labels: we are concerned about the people we love; we value our friendships; we want to be good providers for our families; we want to take care of our health; we work hard and just want to unwind. We’ve learned to live with fear and to work it into our cultural norms quite well. But no one wants to dig below the surface and face the howling insecurities that drive us all.

So it goes against all sensibility, the way Abraham turned to Lot and said “Choose which land you think best for your flocks” as they looked out over the hills stretching away into the horizon– the land God had already given him.  And Lot chose and Abraham just nodded and let him go his way–Lot taking the best of land that wasn’t his to take and Abe giving what had been given, holding his Promised Land with open hands.

Makes me think about the things I hold onto, and why it is so hard to let go.

Maybe it’s the illusion of control when I hold onto things, the deception that still whispers that if I try hard enough I can shape my own destiny and keep my own heart safe, and the ones I love.  Because if I lose that security blanket (however flimsy) what is left is just me and my small concerns in a huge universe, at the mercy of the Creator, and is that really enough?  It is the same whisper that has echoed in the hearts of men since we first heard it in the Garden…. seems like we would have realized by now just Who is in charge, and how much better things were before we fell for that line.

But mostly it’s the fear of losing, when I hold onto things– fear that what is precious can be ruined and my heart can break at the loss.  Fear of not having enough that drives me to hoard and grab and fight for what is mine, like any starving child. Only it has far wider application than physical food; it’s about all the things I think I need: security, love, respect, significance, some meaning in this world. Life feels like a battle, most days, and we have all suffered casualties. We came right out of the Garden knowing how fragile life really is, and how you can lose it all in a few warped moments. Ever since, we have been clutching onto everything good with both hands as it runs through our fingers, trying to hold on and never lose it again.

But Abraham didn’t, even though he had left home behind and come so far to get what had been promised him.  He knew that it was all gift anyway, so he let his nephew take what he wanted, and kept on trusting the Giver to be faithful to His promises. Traveling through the harsh desert should have made him more wary, more mindful of loss, but somehow blessings overflowed into thankfulness enough to fill up his heart and open his hands. It strikes me as the best way to live, out of wholeness and contentment instead of fear….the only way to live, if we truly believe that when we have God we have everything good that is needful, and all things are working together for good, according to His promise.

So pry these fingers loose from the things I can see and touch. Deliver me from the instinct of Self-preservation, and the fear of losing that springs from mortality.  Let me live in full thankfulness, because all is gift, and there is a Giver who does not grow weary; I do not need to hold on tight, because You hold me and all the things I love in Your own love-scarred hands.

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“He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

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“The more I submit my desires to Jesus while letting go of outcomes, the more He seems to answer the deepest longings of my soul. His abundance always surpasses my imagination and fulfills the prayers I didn’t even know I needed to pray.”  Shelly Miller

Whatever You Need

“And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:19) It was the favorite verse of every impoverished college student, and we repeated it to one another encouragingly as we worked our campus jobs, and prayed over bills, and looked for lists of secondhand textbooks on the board in the Campus Center, checked our post office boxes for letters from home in hopes of a check. Lessons in faith well-learned in those years and often leaned upon. But somehow financial needs are the most straightforward place to trust and I have been struggling ever since to know where else to pin it.

Is that verse for parents who are raising a child with overwhelming health needs and finding it takes more energy than they have to give? Will God supply for the parents who are moving a college grad back home because he can’t find a job, knowing full well that student loans are looming? Does God’s promise of provision cover the heart-sore mother over another holiday, who just wishes her family could be together? Does that verse belong to the ministry leader who keeps pleading for more workers, and often grows weary?  So many needs, and they color our lives with desperation for a solution, because they make us feel helpless and afraid. We need a Provider, and doesn’t this well-known verse say that God will supply all our needs?

It strikes me, all these years later, that maybe it wasn’t really meant to be applied to many other things. Just before the Church-Planter Paul made this sweeping claim for the Philippian church, he commends them for giving generously to him in spite of their own hardship, and he confides to them that he has learned the secret of contentment through trial and error….in all the pressing and shifting circumstances of his journeys, he had found this one thing to be constant: the God who had called him was with him always and gave him strength to meet every situation.

In joyful abundance, it is Christ who enables Paul to live well in the midst of it. And in hunger and need, it is Christ who sustains him. It is a secret, a treasure Paul has found hidden in life’s ups and downs, the kind of thing you only find out by living through both. Clearly then, his statement to the Philippian church was no promise that God would supply everything lacking in their lives, nor was it a promise that they would never go without in the future. Maybe it’s just that their generosity is something God notices and rewards.

Indeed, because the secret of contentment is worth sharing with his readers, Paul implies that both abundance and need are only a means to an end. To his way of thinking it is good for our souls to experience both (and probably repeatedly, given how slow we are to learn) so that we may find the treasure of knowing Jesus Christ. Clearly going without was not something Paul feared– not something he would be quick to promise away for his readers. And yet a few paragraphs later he says God will supply all their needs, so it makes me think that maybe his idea of need is something different than mine.

We believe that Christ’s riches are big enough to cover, and we would definitely like God to supply all our needs as concretely as money in a bag, but I think Paul’s real point is about that deeper issue: the secret of knowing God and living in His presence, whether you have the tangible things you need or not. When I go looking for verses about God’s provision I see Him promising forgiveness, mercy, peace, justice, Presence, strength to do what is in front of me….these are the intangibles He thinks I need in life. The other stuff is just the extra details, the context. Like Jesus said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)

It is a kind of culture shock, this head-long collision between normal human perspective and the spiritual reality, like trying to get my brain around a foreign concept. Show me what I really need, Lord, in each situation, and help me to focus there, rather than on the needs most obvious. Help me discover this secret of being “content in whatever circumstances I am.”

It would be frightening to depend on a God who cared more about my spiritual growth than my situation, except that I know His heart. I know His mercy endures forever. Verse after verse piles up overwhelmingly in my favor. He loves me and He is good. I can trust Him in this.

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“He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

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“It is in our acceptance of what is given that God gives Himself.” (These Strange Ashes, Elizabeth Elliot)

How to Really Live Well

What you believe matters most of all. It will affect the way you live, and the way you love, and the way you work, and the way you die. Just ask the little boy who is afraid to go to bed at night in the dark. Ask the mama who is sending her youngest off to college, and the woman who is giving up her career for health reasons. Ask the young adult wondering if there is someone else out there who wants to spend the rest of a life building a home together. Ask the wife sitting with her husband during chemo treatments. Ask all of us, in the stillness of our hearts if what we believe about ourselves and our experiences doesn’t make all the difference in the world. Because how we see life is how we will react to it, and what we think is who we are becoming. Beliefs are the building blocks that will make a life, and some of us don’t even see it until we turn around at the end, and wonder what we built.

The funny thing is that we pay so much attention to what is going on around us– what we are doing, and how we are feeling in the moment– and rarely spare a glance for the beliefs that drive us, underneath it all. The Wise King told his sons to figure that out first, before they wasted their whole lives with meaningless moments….to find solid faith-footing that could guide their steps: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:10) I guess desperation drives some of us, because when you are caught in a storm you start sorting through what you can hold onto, pretty quickly. And what good are beliefs that just fill your head and can’t anchor down Real Life when the winds howl and beat against your house?

Maybe it’s okay to find yourself weak if you find out how sturdy God’s Words are when you lean hard on them. Like the Wise King says, “My son, do not lose sight of these— keep sound wisdom and discretion, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble….for the Lord will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught.” (Proverbs 3:21-23, 26) And if we believe something less useful, the storm will show that too, and maybe there is a severe mercy there somewhere. Because we all believe something, and it will play itself out in our lives, even if it all falls to ruin. Honestly, often the biggest obstacle between what I know about God and living it out in the real world is Myself– thinking I can do it on my own, hanging onto old hurts and misconceptions, finding it hard to trust, my own needs/ fears/emotions drowning everything else out– and I know there are some building blocks that need to fall like sandcastles.

The whole of James’ letter keeps pointing back to this one theme of knowing God and living out our faith. This is something all Christ-followers need to know, that what we believe matters most in this life, because this is what will work its way out into every day we live. “Yes, when you get serious about finding Me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed.” (Jeremiah 29:13) So we keep on pursuing knowing God and His ways, learning to listen as if our lives depend on it, because in the end, they really do.

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“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24-25)

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“Where will you run, my soul?
Where will you go when wells run dry?
When the wind starts to blow,
How you gonna keep this flame alive?
In the fading light when night is breaking,
I know You will always be waiting;
You’ll always be there”
(The Secret Place, Phil Wickham)

Becoming Real

It is only a matter of moments to be born, but it takes many years to grow up into the person you were meant to be. That is true whether we are speaking of the physical world or the spiritual one. And in all that messy process we can sometimes lose sight of the end goal– no wonder the letter-writers in the first century took the time and the ink to remind us over and over of where we are headed, and why. James is barely into his first paragraph when he says “…when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” (James 1:3-4) We tend to think that our end goal is Heaven, and skip right over that important truth that it is our maturity in the faith that God is interested in. Heaven is merely the final destination.

One of my favorite stories when I was little was the one about the Velveteen Rabbit. It wasn’t a fluffy just-for-fun kind of book, but one of those that asks hauntingly big questions from a child’s perspective. Decades later I find that we grownups are still rephrasing the rabbit’s “What does it mean to be real?”….”Who am I?….Do I matter as a person in this world?”….”What makes a life that is worth something?” 

The leather horse in the storybook nursery had surprisingly profound insight into the rabbit’s question. He told his young friend that becoming Real was a process of being loved that lasted all your life– and often it hurts quite a bit, but you don’t even mind, because getting hurt is part of being Real. All these years later, I find that Big-Brother James reveals a similar perspective in his letter to the early Christ-followers. He says that who we are and why we matter are all wrapped up in our relationship with Christ. We get to prove that our faith is real by putting it to work in a million down-to-earth everyday ways: at home with our families, at work, on the street where we live, in the gathering together of the saints. In the process, we are growing up into Christ and learning to reflect the glory of the One Who made us. And yeah, all that does hurt quite a bit at times, because it is lived out in the real world, in community with all-too-real people.

James says we are supposed to love them just because Jesus loves them too. But we may as well be honest… loving people is hard sometimes. In all the ways they bump up against us, and see things differently, and act in their own interests, we can end up feeling rubbed raw and raggedy. That’s not all bad. In the words of the leather horse, “Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you.” Gradually, as we endure, we are becoming more like Jesus in love and understanding and patience. James says you can recognize that transformation in a person’s life: “… the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds.” (James 3:17) Maturity doesn’t come all at once– it is a bumpy, sometimes messy process– and the only way we can hang in there is by fixing our eyes on the sharp vivid reality of Resurrection Life ahead. James writes his encouragement to us: “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12)

No question about it, it can be a struggle to extend the gift of Grace to people who don’t deserve it. Somehow it is easier to accept grace myself than it is to hand it out over and over again. I can get weary of listening long, and being slow to anger, and controlling my tongue, and forgiving offenses… but James says this is what it means to really live in the Kingdom of God. Anything else is just pretending. And in that rugged everyday process of shedding our old skins and learning to live according to God’s wisdom together, we are becoming Real. We are finding out who we were meant to be, and discovering the reasons we were placed here and now, and James promises a good result in the end: “those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.” (James 3:18) Specifically, Jesus says that harvest of righteousness will be a joyful Home in the depths of His love. “When you obey My commandments, you remain in My love, just as I obey My Father’s commandments and remain in His love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with My joy.” (John 15:10-11)

Turns out that we and the stuffed velveteen rabbit have quite a bit in common. And it is the fortunate individual who discovers the blessing of being Real and Loved, being completely known and accepted for how we are made.  “‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’”

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“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (James 1:22-25)

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“We are not for long, and we are what we long for; we are but dust, and we are but our hearts; we are a vapor, and we become what we come to love. Love Him most and we who are a vapor become a fragrance of praise that will last for all of forever.” (Ann VosKamp)

Back to Basics

It sounds so simple that we might be tempted to brush past these few sentences, on our way to more pithy and profound instructions. “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” (James 5:13) Why would James bother telling us to do something that would come naturally anyway– don’t we usually pray when we are in trouble and sing God’s praises when we are happy? Yeah sure, except that very often we don’t actually do those things at all, and I have to join Big-Brother James in wondering why.

Throughout his letter to all us Christ-followers, James has been underlining the fact that real faith shows itself through actions. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” (James 2:14) It is no use to walk through your days saying you believe God’s Word, if everything that your life produces says otherwise. I can protest up and down and until every last cow comes home that I am a Christ-follower, but unless I am actually trusting His will, choosing to obey Him, allowing the Spirit to transform my nature to His likeness more and more, I’m only an imitation. Along the lines of a store mannequin dressed up in a lovely outfit, and unarguably devoid of life.

But of course James uses word pictures that are more sensible to his first-century listeners when he points out that what flows from a man reveals what he actually believes in his heart. “My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” (James 3:12) So for James, those simple instructions to pray or praise are making some important observations about the heart: namely, that in all the varying circumstances of life, the person who is trusting God as the Maker and Ruler will turn to Him in response as naturally as a fig tree bears figs. And like fig trees, this is a growth process, something that we are learning to do with every new situation we face. Something we must cultivate carefully, and watch out for the roots of distrust and self-will that get in the way of prayer and praise. No matter how far along you are, you have to keep returning to this simple everyday caretaking of the heart.

“Whenever you face trials of every kind…” you should know Who to ask for wisdom and strength, and you can even “consider it pure joy because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” (James 1:2-3) When life is beautiful you should understand that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17) See, it’s not about how upstanding you look to the casual observer, but about Who has captured your heart. James is talking about replacing a list of regulations with a living, breathing love relationship. Whether we are grieving, or confused, or rejoicing over good news, we are invited to share our hearts completely with our Friend and Savior. And where the Spirit of God breathes through a man, flowing out in trust and prayer and praise, there is faith and a fresh spring of Life that lasts forever.

Here at the end of his letter, James is reminding us of basic instructions for everyday life in the Kingdom of God. To pray when we are in trouble. To praise and give thanks when we are blessed. To respond to the prompting of the Spirit of God Who lives in us and points our hearts ever and only to the Father. To “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) in Christ. From here James’ letter can turn quite naturally to the complexities of life in the Family of God, where we are taking part in one another’s growth and healing, in beautiful ways. But first things first.

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“Trust in Him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to Him, for God is our refuge.” (Psalm 62:8)

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“I know the night won’t last
Your Word will come to pass
My heart will sing Your praise again
Jesus, You’re still enough
Keep me within Your love
My heart will sing Your praise again

Your promise still stands
Great is Your faithfulness, faithfulness
I’m still in Your hands
This is my confidence, You never failed me yet…”

(Do It Again, Elevation Worship)